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The thing I appreciate most about Michael Weingarth, and that will become clear as you listen to this episode, is his passionate intensity. He comes off like a man who has received wisdom, like a divine revelation. Yet bolstering that intensity and passion is the deep understanding of a body of literature from subfields of neuroscience calling into question what the current popular model of “raw cognition” - represented by #cogsci, ResearchEd, and elsewhere in professional development - leaves out. As well as how its premature generalization into school settings - often wrapped up in language of “evidence-based” or “research-based” practice - is derived from evidence & research that excludes disability & neurodivergence. The consequence is a school setting whose values & measures, pacing guides, practices & interventions center the mythical “normal”.
In this conversation we talk about the genesis of and the concepts surrounding Michael’s work as the Founder of Penelope Education, which educates teachers on why and how error patterns manifest across subject areas and grade levels- and more importantly, shows teachers how to pinpoint possible root causes and how to collaborate with students to build workarounds. Using neuroinclusive frameworks to create an anti-racist, feminist, anti-ableist education. As a side note, Michael recorded an addendum to his thoughts about cognitive compensation that I’ve added to the end of the episode. I hope you find this conversation as energizing as I did.
Michael Weingarth is the founder of Pillars of Learning and Penelope Education as an expert on brain science. His framework to examine compensatory patterns of cognition helps students achieve academically.
0:00:00.0 Michael Weingarth: I think if we can get away from this idea that there is a solution, that there is a way that brains do things, and instead, just accept that it's always adapting, it's always dynamically responding to its environment, and if we know as much about that as possible, we are just better caretakers of not just the brain and the stuff that goes into it that equips it for stuff later in life, but of the human also, and if we make sure that we're caretakers of the human as well as the brain, and we're adopting that policy of knowing about the brain doesn't dismiss everything that we intuitively believe about helping kids navigate school, that's something where I think we can all benefit and sort of move away from that CogSci one-dimensionality, that lack of criticality.
0:00:43.0 Nick Covington: Hello, and welcome to episode 126 of our podcast at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Nick Covington. This episode is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Simeon Frang, Brandon Peters and Laurie Walker. Thank you so much for your ongoing support. You can find out more about our work at humanrestorationproject.org. The thing I appreciate most about Michael Weingarth, and that will become clear to you as you listen to this episode, is his passionate intensity. He comes off like a man who has received wisdom, like a divine revelation, yet bolstering that intensity and passion is the deep understanding of a body of literature from subfields of neuroscience calling into question with the current popular model of raw cognition as represented by hashtag CogSci, ResearchEd and elsewhere in professional development leaves out as well as how it's premature generalization into school settings often wrapped up in the language of evidence-based or research-based practice is derived from evidence and research that excludes disability and neurodivergence.
0:01:48.5 NC: The consequence is a school setting whose values and measures, pacing guides, practices and interventions center the mythical normal. In this conversation, we talk about the genesis of and the concept surrounding Michael's work as the founder of Penelope Education, which educates teachers on why and how error patterns manifest across subject areas and grade levels, and more importantly, shows teachers how to pinpoint possible root causes and how to collaborate with students to build workarounds using neuro-inclusive frameworks to create an anti-racist, feminist, anti-ablest education. And as a side note, Michael recorded an addendum to his thoughts about cognitive compensation that I've added to the end of the episode. I hope you find this conversation as energizing as I did.
0:02:50.5 NC: Michael Weingarth, how are you doing, sir?
0:02:52.7 Michael Weingarth: I'm great. How are you, Nick?
0:02:54.7 NC: So let's just start the conversation with the beginning for you. What's your story? What's your background? What are your interests and passions? What have you been up to?
0:03:04.1 MW: Yeah, so I'm a former classroom teacher. From 2010 to 2012, I was teaching at a "rigorous" private school with these kids who were going to Ivy League schools and all the elitism, and I was there and I encountered a student for whom I was pretty sure was just kind of shy and not that into my English class, right? And after about six months, I had a... I did administer a grammar exam, and on this grammar exam, it became clear that this student really couldn't actually pick up what she was reading. And so a little bit, a week later or two, she gets evaluated and it turns out she has a subtype of dyslexia, and for six months, I was person who did my professional development. I went to the Learning and the Brain Conference, I read all of the cognitive science books, the best sellers and I was convinced I was doing a great job pedagogically. And I couldn't realize that the student couldn't read, which is weird because she could read in some ways and in other ways, the important ways that I was missing the cues on, was where she was struggling, and it's not because I wasn't paying attention to this student. It's because I had no clue how to separate out my own conceptions of what reading look like from what it looks like from a neuropsychological perspective.
0:04:17.7 MW: Shortly after that, I left the classroom to kind of dive into that question of like how did I miss this and why would anyone miss this? And bear in mind, she came to me after being at the school for two years, and no one had figured out that this was the problem. So that led me to found a tutoring company which really looked at not just helping kids one-on-one, but actually using neuropsychological theory and constructs and language to teach kids about the ways in which their brains manifest certain behaviors or responses to certain stimuli, and trying to get them to a place where they could make themselves self-sufficient, and not need a tutor and not really need help and be able to describe their struggles without the need for extra help constantly with the teacher, or this belief that they're "just bad at". And this all stemmed from a fundamental reason why I got into teaching, which is that I always believed there was no reason a student could not get better at something if you gave enough time and energy to it, which I know might be naive in some respect, but hey, that's the true media education.
0:05:14.7 MW: And so for about 12 years, I ran Pillars of Learning, which was my tutoring company, and that really taught me a lot about how brains actually work, not just what you read in those cognitive science best sellers or what you get in someone's bullet points from their talk, Learning and the Brain or all those things. And then I decided I wanted to do something little different. I got a little... I'm a little burned out on the... Just working with kids for whom they're stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I founded Penelope, which basically takes what I do and tries to equip schools to do the same thing, which is teach teachers how to use everyday vocabulary to look at what a student's dealing with. So describing question stimuli, answer stimuli, cross-referencing that with knowledge they can get about neuropsychological phenomenon or components like executive functioning, processing, perceptual cues, looking at all of these to say, when you're describing what a student is missing, here's how you could do it in a way that actually lets the student get at a pattern.
0:06:13.6 MW: So it's instead of just this idea of like, "I'm analyzing their work, I know what's going on," it sort of tries to place the focus on common vocabulary that can be used across subjects. And if you're really into this like Penelope's, what we're hoping to do is help schools develop qualitative brain-based data system, so looking at neuropsychological language across an entire curriculum, across policy, across everything about how students are supported, how they're learning, how they're being assessed with the goal of saying actually what the school is missing are these components of executive functioning or of processing cues or whatever, and helping schools realize there's these gaps which are really easy to fill if you can locate them, but oftentimes teachers, especially, but administrators also don't have the language to say, that's what this thing is.
0:06:57.9 MW: It's planning. Let's say, we know that 50% of our 10th graders aren't great at planning essays or outlining essays. It's not really planning essays. It's a bunch of other things that go into that, and if you have these types of systems in place or just some training where you're teaching the teachers how to do it, they can catch these things that can identify them, they can separate them out into categories, and then you can work on them. The same way that a trainer can rehab a tiny little tendon issue in your foot that ultimately leads to your knee splaying out when you land, when you run, which ultimately is due to tearing your ACL. The goal of Penelope is to treat everyone and get everyone to that level of expertise, so they're like that trainer saying, it's a tendon and we can figure that and we can test it and see how it reacts up the chain rather than waiting for the catastrophe and needing the surgery.
0:07:50.2 MW: So that's ultimately the goal of Penelope, is teaching teachers and teaching administrators how to get to that degree of precision using layperson language as well as the more technical ones to identify brain-based patterns. And that's what's most exciting to me right now, is sort of bringing that to people that have no clue what neuropsychology is, or who think executive functioning is solely about a book bag and how organized it is, or people who imagine that neurobiologically, there's the prefrontal cortex, and that's the only thing that does the thinking and the learning and it's not connected to any other part of the brain. And then if you know enough neuroanatomy, you could describe learning. That's ultimately enriching that field is my goal and bring it to a larger, more complex set of interaction.
0:08:33.7 NC: One of the most powerful parts of what you're explaining there is something that is not generally included in teacher education. It probably isn't something that's part of getting your admin licensure and moving the chain of policy and practice, I suppose, and that's a neuropsychological component. So when you talk about the work that you were doing with that student in that tutoring context, one thing that we've talked about is that work with those twice-exceptional students and how they don't fit into, I guess, those boxes that neuropsych, that educators kind of get in our own tool box to solve those problems. And then the systems box on how to resolve and provide supports for those kids, it just doesn't seem to fit into all of those, so they kind of face challenges from both of those ends. I'm wondering if you could go into a bit of that neuropsych component. What is it that we are missing that you are honestly such a knowledgeable and passionate kind of advocate for pulling back that curtain and looking at the ways in which our cognitive models apply to school have failed a lot of kids, but particularly these kids, the twice-exceptional here? And then just maybe go more into that if you are able to. Just talk more about how those kids fall in the cracks specifically.
0:09:50.9 MW: Yeah, sure. First of all, I just wanna be clear that twice-exceptional is not a label, I think is good or accurate.
0:09:57.6 NC: Okay.
0:09:58.6 MW: It's a label that's given to kids based on to inadequate systems to address potential and labeling kids in terms of their potential, to me, it strikes me as something horrible that we should never seek to do, but that's what we have currently. So just so you're clear, twice-exceptional is someone who we categorize as both learning disabled. Again, not a word I would choose to use and gifted, which again, not a word I would choose to use, but that's the language that we have. It's given to us by legal entities and state policies and whatnot. So a twice-exceptional student has to be tested a variety of ways to identify what the issue is. The problem with this is that a variety of twice-exceptional learners and short-hand people will call them 2e, if you read that anywhere. One of them don't actually get their issues located when they take a neuropsychological evaluation.
0:10:50.0 MW: So to back this up a step, neuropsychology itself as a field looks at three major components, which is neurodegenerative brain injury or disease, which is important, and that stuff we should definitely be looking at and caring about. The second one, which has gotten the most attention relative to education is concussions, which is also really important, and the last one which gets the least amount of funding is learning difference and how to identify it and what to do with it, and how to test for it. Within neuropsychology, the school of thought or the field rather, a school neuropsychology, which is what most of the people that you might come in contact with who are evaluating the children in your classrooms, that's the person that's gonna be doing that. That was their specialty.
0:11:27.1 MW: And in school of neuropsychology, their primary duty is a couple of things, but one of them, which eats up most of their time is every kid that gets hit really hard in the head, you have to evaluate them to make sure they don't have a concussion, which is good. We should do that. That's important, but it also means that if there's just one person doing this in an entire school district, they're relatively crunched for time in terms of actually doing tests to tease out subtle differences in a learning profile. When you read the textbooks about how to train as a neuropsychologist or just guidebooks, practitioners handbooks, whatever, they'll tell you, "Here are these confidence intervals." You can't always trust them, but they're a rough guy, right? And so if you're bottom of one conference interval, top of another in a related field, maybe that's not really an issue. Maybe that's not actually two separate categories. Maybe you're just sort of in this range where they're both really similar.
0:12:17.6 MW: The problem is that if there is something significant there and you're swamped with seven other kids to evaluate to make sure they didn't get a concussion, you're stuck basically choosing between, "Do I spend more time doing this or do I do this other thing that I need to do?" And it's not ultimately up to you because it's also based on the amount of tests you can order based on your budget. If you're a private practice, that's not an issue, but that's expensive. Sometimes insurance will reimburse you for a private neuropsychological evaluation, other times it's not.
0:12:45.9 MW: And most states issue whats called psychoeducational testing as their first step in trying to identify a learning difference if a kid gets referred. Psychoeducational testing is an IQ test, which I've written on extensively about their history and links to New Genesis scientists and the ways in which it hasn't evolved much since then, and there's still lots of problems with anything related to measurable intelligence as a field. They're used in conservatorship cases for individuals with intellectual disability to decide if they have urgency over their own life or not. And the fact that these tests were really designed never to actually measure anyone below an... With an IQ below a certain cut off speaks to the problem of trying to update that test and fill in the gaps. So there's a lot of problems with IQ testing as a whole, but if you wanna get to this place of being 2e, fundamentally, someone has recognized that you have latent gifts or talents, and you have this natural ability in some way that seems like you're smart, and you have these other things that seems like you're not as smart. That's basically the lay teacher's description of what will happen, right? They're great at this, but then this happens, and then they can't do it at all. And it's weird also because you can be twice-exceptional and it doesn't have to be domain-specific.
0:13:53.9 MW: For instance, you can be a brilliant math student with illegible handwriting, and that means you may have dysgraphia or a series of fine motor coordination problems and that qualify as a learning disability, so you'd be twice-exceptional, but the only indication was that no one can read your handwriting, which if you only type is never a problem. So there's all these weird ways in which twice-exceptional as a label is only existing because of various systems pushing kids into certain categories. Giftedness really also shouldn't even be a category, neither should learning disabled. Really what we should develop is a system that seeks to free ourselves from the need to segregate children into different groups, and I agree that either some kids who are best served by being grouped with peers who are facing the same issues, but the problem isn't that that's not possible. That's possible in a totally unsegregated classroom. It's just not what we do now. We have systems in place, we have training models in place, we have evaluation models in place, and we're not really willing to invest any money and to change them. So that's how we get to the systems piece. If we go back just to twice-exceptional learners, if we're gonna talk about them this way, is that nothing that they have shows up on evals most of the time. That's because evals are bad at catching subtypes of dyslexia, sub types of...
0:15:08.8 MW: Sorry, anything to do with autism, non-verbal learning issues, which fundamentally would be what looks like autism without other hallmarks of autism. That's a nifty way to describe that kind of problem. Executive dysfunction that's specifically around symbol system dysfunction. So this wouldn't be a kid who's disorganized. This would be a student who can't transfer rules of exponents successfully over to chemistry or can't differentiate between the rules of chemistry, which involve subscript and exponents which involve hyper-scripts obviously going up rather than down. And so stuff like that, where you see these bizarre patterns of error where you can't quite describe them, students who have those will fall through evaluation holes where they just keep getting referred for more and more testing and nothing shows up. And so twice-exceptional students often get squeezed, because they're bored and they're simultaneously very frustrated that they can't learn certain things or can't do certain things, and really what they're actually frustrated with is that no one's teaching them how to do certain things because there's beliefs about their smartness, which is preventing a teacher from realizing what's going on. For handwriting, how could you possibly have such bad handwriting if you're so good at such complex stuff? Often teachers don't have that connection that there's two separate parts of learning and doing this or thinking about it that make up that task.
0:16:28.7 MW: So it's this idea that handwriting, it should be easy. It's a fundamental skill, and that doing algebra as a fifth grader is genius level work, and how could there be such a disconnect? And that's largely due to a cultural way that we understand learning and intelligence, which is this kind of bottom-up acquisition of skills that go along the way, and if there's any problems, that means you have a learning struggle. And that's not really what happens at all. It's way more similar to a body in that you can have a kiddo go through a growth spurt, and is 5'10 as a third grader and then stops growing for a long time, and then maybe it's another one when they're 18. I have no idea how likely that is, but I just know that bodies don't follow a uniform linear developmental path. They're all unique, they all compensate, they all have this adaptive ways of responding to the task that they're asked to do in the environment that they exist in. Brains do the same thing, but for some reason, we've convinced ourselves that it all tracks linearly, and first grade is the time for this, and second grade is time for that, so on and so forth. And the problem with 2e is just, it's not so much that they're not developing. It's that they're doing stuff which is remarkable and unique and wonderful, and instead of being labelled as that, people are just mystified by this discrepancy between excellence in one area and profound struggle in another.
0:17:45.0 NC: Could you unpack that notion of cognitive compensation for us as a framework?
0:17:52.8 MW: Yeah, I wouldn't pose it as a solution to anything explicitly, but it's a really good way to unpack what we have in terms of systems and how they've labeled kids accurately or not. It's a great starting place, and it's also a useful way for teachers to get to that place of sort of anti-ableist framing of how they're looking at student error and also ensuring that they're looking at the right ways of error longitudinally, so that they can get students to that place of self-sufficiency. To explain it really simply as a phenomenon, all brains compensate all the time. The easiest example which is, if you read neuropsychological textbooks there, this is always in there, but if you get hit in the temple with the baseball, you go temporarily blind due to some brain swelling or some local swelling, and then you're relying on your other senses to move about the world and you don't perish. It's not like that stops you and kills you. The ability to see doesn't utterly mean that you can't function. So cognitive compensation, that's one example of it, which is just neural pathways are unavailable, the brain uses other ones. What's interesting about cognitive compensation, if I could say it in an educational context, is that kids do this all the time in super inventive ways, and one of these happens all the time with subtraction.
0:19:05.0 MW: So when I was being taught math, there was a big thing about you have to want to carry the one when you're doing subtraction, and there's new ways of teaching math that don't involve this, but for a long time, if you couldn't carry the one and didn't use the sort of vertically aligned way of doing subtraction, you wouldn't learn subtraction the way you're supposed to. You might be getting the right answers, but you couldn't demonstrate that you were right or back up your reasoning that you're right, because you were just doing it in a way in your own head that made a lot of sense. And maybe you were calculating, like moving into negative numbers and then subtracting the second two-digit number after you've moved into that negative or adding the negative back in, but you didn't necessarily... Nothing wrong with the way you were doing it in your head if you weren't carrying the one and still getting the right answer. That's a compensation pattern. It's not necessarily even a compensation pattern because there wasn't something there. It's only compensation when a teacher says, "You can't do it that way. You have to do it this way." And now your brain has to kind of like ditch this thing that was easy and route through a different way of doing it that you're not told to.
0:20:06.7 MW: It happens the other way too, where let's say you're not doing something... The way that you are doing something isn't working. So let's say I'm trying to do an analytical English paper, which I couldn't write for the first two years of my high school career, 'cause I didn't understand what the point of it was. And so I'm regurgitating what a teacher says, and I'm guessing that these are important quotes to talk about, but I have no clue what the point is or what the purpose of it is because I don't care about what I'm writing, and I don't care about what I'm reading, and I'm just trying to do this to get a good grade. My brain's compensating because I'm attempting to map to something which I don't know what it is. Compensation really when we talk about... Those are light examples. What we really talk about for this is students who are actually dealing with something significant, and in reality, what's gonna become clear at the end of this conversation, my emotional reluctance to invest in my poorly taught English class in 9th and 10th grade actually is a serious neurobiological block. That student's inability to feel validated by their teacher when they're doing subtraction in a cool, unique way is also a completely legitimate neurobiological phenomenon.
0:21:12.8 MW: What we care about really with compensation, and the easier way to understand it is something more concrete in the brain, like a neural pathway that genetically will not open. So let's say this was an executive function around segmenting, and let's say particularly it's really acute for a student segmenting more than two numbers at a time. So they're great with two-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication. All of a sudden, they get to three and it's very hard for them to break it apart. It just becomes too much. Or let's say it's polynomials. If there's more than three elements in a polynomial like 4x squared or 4x minus 7xq, it just breaks down for them, and they can't figure out how to move forward, and it feels like they're frozen, and they'll describe it as being too hard or never knowing how to start, and they look to a teacher for a process, right?
0:22:00.3 MW: And so they get a process, but ultimately, they may never understand what it means fluidly to understand those things at a deep level. Instead, they just know, "When I see this, I have an algorithm that I apply." The hope of all math and of all teaching in general is that eventually with enough of those, you get to a place where you could put the pieces together and it makes more sense, but the problem for so many of these kids is that if it actually is something neurobiological in nature, there will be a point at which it just goes click until it's some place in a context for them that it works, right? And so you may never get it in school, and you may never actually have it in your life. You might just be something you're told that you're not good at, and that's the narrative you run with, and you don't ever investigate it.
0:22:40.1 MW: So what thinking about compensation does is instead of saying, "The student can't do this task," it says, "The student can't do this task, and we absolutely have to investigate why on certain factors that I would never normally think about." Like literally counting the number of digits and then asking every other teacher that this student deals with, "Where does this student seem to struggle?" And seeing if I can figure out what that means. Is it about working memory, like how many numbers a brain can hold at a given time? Is it about separating things apart? Is it about attention span? Is it last year's math teacher, did they have a bad experience?
0:23:14.4 MW: And I'm not... This is gonna make it sound like I'm asking a teacher to do all this investigation themselves, but the point is that if you adopt this as a framework that you're trying to work with, everybody will know how to do this, everybody will know how to pass information on a way that's helpful, and there's also a common vocabulary for things like executive dysfunction around segmenting, for instance. So you could say like, "You know, they were fine, but once we got to shapes, they had a really hard time breaking up the different angles, or figuring out how to count the number of angles inside a shape, or they couldn't figure out how to translate, to manipulate, to think about rotating a shape or transforming it or making it bigger or smaller." And all of these things will provide connections and insight into what's happening for that student more than, "Tommy doesn't do well with three-digit numbers." Like, "Tommy cannot do well with three-digit numbers for any number of reasons," but compensation and thinking about it actually lets you investigate why.
0:24:03.9 MW: And so it combats survivorship bias, which I've talked about a little bit. On Twitter not a ton, but there's this idea that we don't investigate failure because we assume we understand what causes it, and that sort of comes from an example of World War II, where this refugee statistician, Abraham Wald, was dealing with a bunch of engineers and they were like, "All these planes came back from defending London after the Battle of Britain. We should reinforce the places where the planes took damage." And Abraham Wald was like, "No, we need to reinforce the places that... Like the planes didn't come back is what we need to reinforce. We need to find them and figure out what went wrong, and that's what we care about, but we can't see that, so we don't know what to do. These planes made it back. There's not an issue here."
0:24:46.4 MW: So the idea with survivorship bias is that we have all these reasons for failure, and survivorship bias is also heavily tied into this concept of measurable intelligence, which I spoke about a little bit earlier. But the idea here is that any teacher can look at a pattern of errors and decide if they know enough, "Neuropsychologically, this may be what's going on. I'm gonna talk to the student about it. Let's see if we can give them vocabulary for describing this error." And then the student might say, "Yes, that's perfectly it. I have a real problem with segmenting any number more than three-digit numbers."
0:25:20.2 MW: Or they might not. They might be like, "No, I just don't like this stuff," but you have a better inroad than just being like, "You're bad at this. Here's more problems of the same thing to do to practice this in different contexts until you get better at it." And the idea with all of this though is that we're assuming that error is discreet, we're assuming that it's decontextualized, and we're assuming that it can be remediated if you just practice it more in isolation. All of it it's connected to a much richer and more complex system than we're aware of. And compensation also means that you're aware of those systems and you're getting educated about effective neuroscience, how emotion connects to learning. You're getting aware of perception and how connected it is to your brainstem, that perception itself may trigger an emotional response or a... Sorry, a response in your fighter flight system, your sympathetic nervous system, which shuts down your ability to function for a moment. And that's okay, that you can recover from that, but if you know this as a teacher, you're that much more sensitive in a depth at figuring out what's going on for a student when they're struggling rather than this blanket-pushing of like just this stamp of like, not good, or incorrect, or didn't do this to task.
0:26:30.9 MW: I think most teachers that... [chuckle] I hope most teachers who care about their students are trying to establish those connections, trying to figure out, "How can I help this student help themselves?" Compensation just gives you more precise vocabulary, more education and more knowledge about stuff that isn't taught in teacher training or professional development currently and plugs those gaps hopefully. And it's not exact, it's not a solution, it's not a silver bullet. I wanna be absolutely clear about this. Learning this does not mean that all of a sudden you see error patterns and you're like one of those geniuses with the numbers floating around your head or writing on a clear board with a whiteboard marker. That meme, whatever that is. Really it's just about you get a better chance at identifying a deep pattern that happens for a student across their entire life and will continue to happen and I think that's the other key component difference of compensation versus regular remediation, is that remediation, you're just looking at a specific thing, practicing it until it makes sense, then you send the student on their way. Compensation, you're basically looking at a neural pathway difference, and you're trying to say, "Your brain wants to by default do these things. Let's try to train it habitually to do these other things when it recognizes these factors are present."
0:27:43.8 MW: So if we go back to that rehab example of like there's a problem in my foot with a tendon, it might be that I need to think about lifting my arch of my foot and pulling it in by pushing my balls of my feet towards my heels, because I can't just think about lifting my arch when I land. But if I do that, it fixes the tendon problem and then my knee doesn't splay and then I don't retear my ACL after I've had it repaired already once for doing this in the first place.
0:28:08.0 MW: The whole point of this is that we give more subtlety, more precision, more depth, more training in a really condensed amount of time because this stuff actually maps to student activity really well, unlike something like Cognitive Load Theory, which maps very well to teacher activity. It doesn't map necessarily to what a student is experiencing in a given moment, because there's no way to know that without giving fMRIs to every one of your students.
0:28:34.3 MW: But Cognitive Load Theory makes a very compelling case for how to make an excellent lecture slide, and how much information should be on it, and how it should be portrayed, but that may make... Like there's no way to know how that's gonna impact a student who has a visual processing disorder. You might have dual-coded it, and the fact that you chose a visual stimuli has completely ruined it for that one student, but we never know that. And there's very few studies that are gonna actually tease out to say, "Here's how it impacts neurodiverse learners. Here's how it impacts students with this particular subset of issues." Instead, it's always averaged or norm-referenced, which is not helpful at all, because we know on average, students learn better when these things happen, but everyone that... I'm concerned how really there are students that are already pushed to the margins of these things, and schools that are trying to do the progressive dynamic models where you're not pushing people to the margins, should also care about this that a lot of that cognitive science is really looking at the smack-dab middle of a bell curve. They're not concerned with who's getting pushed to the margins by these practices as they exist.
0:29:34.3 NC: Well, let's dive right into that since you just opened that door for me here. So I'm curious about a few things in this direction, 'cause you mentioned the Cognitive Load Theory, because aside from your professional work, you've kind of been leading a one-man extracurricular project against what you call the neuro fluffers, and I'm wondering that if you could just kind of unpack, because what that's really getting at is this sort of narrowed vision for what I always call hashtag CogSci, 'cause it's kind of a brand, right? It's not like representative of a real science, a holistic kind of field of understanding of human cognition. It's kind of a very narrow-branded model of thinking about thinking that happens to tie really well to write a political ideology of a few people in the UK, for example, but that's neither here or there.
0:30:24.7 NC: But when we bring it back to Cognitive Load Theory, the neuro fluffers, and even some conversations then that we have had, and you've opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of the research into cognition does not include people who are not... Does not include neurodivergent people by its very nature. So I wonder if we could kind of unpack a little bit of that. Where are the flaws as you see it, as you've labeled in that neuro fluffer category? What are the things that you kind of poke fun at in that area? And then really what are the flaws in that field writ large, and how are the students that you're trying to reach excluded from those models that then inform their experience of school? The experience of school from this particular lens of hashtag CogSci not include them. What's up with that?
0:31:14.8 MW: Yeah, I mean, the easiest way to think about this, so cognition as a field looks at the idea of raw cognition, right? Up until extremely recently, no one's really been looking at cognition as like a larger phenomenon than simply prefrontal cortex's responding to stimuli, which means that it's a loop between perception, attention and working memory and nothing else.
0:31:38.1 MW: Annie Murphy Paul, who wrote this beautiful book, "The Extended Mind", which is about embodied cognition, has sort of already made a little dent in that, but real people that work on cognition studies aren't the people that we're talking about being this hashtag CogSci or these neuro fluffers who are really just like taking one isolated piece of cognition and running with it as if it's the thing that's gonna sell their book or get them their next speaking gig. I think the problem with cognition as a field is that you rely on two things, which is memory as your major thing that you're able to measure through testable output, and observable behavior is your other one, and that's a pretty flawed model for assessing... It's a really flawed model for assessing what a student has learned, because you can define learning to be whatever is on the output, and it may mean nothing. Like your ability to memorize a string of random words, I don't know how relevant that is for or how much of a predictor that is for anything else, and even if it is, does it really matter?
0:32:40.7 MW: And that's the problem we see with a lot of the CogSci, is that the scientists who are doing it are interested in those isolated disconnected pieces of like, "We know that students can memorize this many things in this time." And then their next step is like, "Now that we know that, we're going to extend this by 1 inch further." But it's like, "Now that they've done random words, we'll do numbers, and then we'll see how they do on a test." And so the connections there aren't meant to take those isolated findings and bridge them to a world where better teaching and better outcomes in life are connected to individual pedagogical choices around memorization, but CogSci treats a lot of that stuff as if it is, or assumes that there is a model which leads to better teaching and in turn, better everything. When you generalize one finding, one study, even a series of studies to say this is settled science and this is known about the human brain, you are ignoring a huge field of study about the human brain, which says nothing is settled, that it is continuously evolving.
0:33:38.0 MW: James Shine, who's a very brilliant scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, has one of the best Twitter threads on the brain I've ever read about the way that human brains develop, and his whole theory is that the thalamus drives neurodevelopmental pathways. It's like the energy governor for it. And he studied systems level interactions between the brain. Someone that he retweeted, I think it's Jasmine Sullivan. Apologies if I'm not doing her name justice, but she just did a study that threat probability in mice is calculated in the brainstem. So it's not actually even in the prefrontal cortex that there's this possibility. The threat probability doesn't even really go into your thought... You're not thinking it at all. It's that... Not just that recognition of threat. That's a different thing. We know that humans can recognize threat and have that be in their brainstem, but that probability calculation, which is the word calculate is in there, which we think of with the PFC heavy thinking part of the brain. Just this idea that the settled science is kind of a joke.
0:34:38.6 MW: Gary Marcus, who's a famous AI researcher, posts a lot about the difference between computer models of the brain and the reality of the brain, and there's a great piece he found, and I forget who posted it, and I'll see if I can send it to you afterward, but it's how we don't know the physical basis of memory. We just don't understand how memory functions. We know what it does output-wise and we have ways of measuring it, but we don't understand in the brain where memory is. We know things are connected with it, we know things help form memories, but we don't have like a, "That's the memory part." And there's a theory in the piece that it's stored in synaptic connections, which would make a lot of sense, explains a lot about PTSD and dendrites closing off after trauma, and also flashbacks and all these other fascinating things. But my point is I am on Twitter and I read a lot of textbooks, and I do a lot of research, and I don't think that you have to be a very educated person to access those things and draw the same conclusions I have, which is, there is very little settled science about the human brain.
0:35:41.6 MW: We don't know a ton about it, and extrapolating that this certain model is the thing to do to get the best outcome seems insane to me, and it's also the same shit that New Genesis did when they were designing measurable intelligence tests, which is, "These are the things that I care about, and I'm gonna go take this test, and I'm gonna use it as a way to leverage my own beliefs about everything." And that's why Carl Brigham, the guy who wrote the original SAT and was the grandfather of the AP exams, wrote a book where he basically just said, "Immigrants and anybody who isn't White should not reproduce. Racial reproduction threat is a huge threat to all of humanity." That was in the intro by Robert Yerkes, who was the head of the APA at the time.
0:36:29.6 MW: And I know that we're like, "Oh, it's overtime." But my point is that it was 1920s, 100 years ago, and I know that that's a long time, and there's a lot of things that have happened between now and then. But the fact that we're still using intelligence tests when the whole field sprung up from guys like that, that'd be like saying, "We're gonna do medicine, we're gonna use medical tools by the same guy who is running around with a bunch of leeches." Like it might work, it might not, but do we wanna trust the leeches guy or do we wanna go with somebody else? It's like, "Why are we still using this stuff or connected to it at all?" And I know that that's complicated, but medicine itself, I think, is a really good example of how quickly accepted science leads to bad outcomes, and not just like, "Oh, surgery didn't go well." It's like it kills people, and structural bias in medicine kills Black mothers more than it does anybody else. The black mortality rate, in the US I should say, is shockingly high. You just Google it and you'll read a bunch of horror stories and you'll probably cry and it's super sad, and it's because of pervasive myths about high pain tolerance and other stuff that's shockingly outdated and still around and still hanging around.
0:37:42.5 MW: And so availability bias itself, if you look at stents in medicine too, availability bias drives this. People assume clogged artery, high blood pressure, we'll put it in a stent, but a stent may or may not be as helpful as other things. And there's a great article, which I'll also send to you about this about availability bias, and just because you know it's a thing, it then becomes the thing you do, and that isn't necessarily helpful if you're not critically... There's no criticality in these pieces. It's just available knowledge. So the problem with any CogSci, the problem with a lot of Learning and the Brain conferences and stuff like this is that we're positioning all of this as if it's about learning, as if it's about brains, but we don't actually know if it is. What we do know is that brains are complex, they adapt to their environment, and that they're always taking in stimuli, be it on the classroom, around them, the sounds they're hearing, the air they're breathing, and that if you're in the West Coast and there's bad wild fires and you have asthma, you may be having a panic attack without even knowing that you're having a panic attack because you're getting less oxygen as you're starting to trigger, and all of a sudden your brain's on fire screaming there's a problem, and you had no clue it was coming, right?
0:38:48.0 MW: That's still Learning and the Brain, but no one's talking about that. Obviously a kid will know, hopefully, if they're having an asthma attack or if they start feeling panicky, they'll be able to talk to you, but that's an extreme example. What we could talk about instead of Learning and the Brain is the ways in which a kid has an intense reaction to noise, and they live in a neighborhood where there's a lot of loud bangs and noises, and then they go to school and it's a particularly noisy ventilation system, and they freak out every time there's a loud bang. Now that kid every time that that's happening is having like a mini trauma trigger that they've just gotta ignore as they go through their day. But instead we're like, "Present your lecture notes these way." There's no investigation of these pieces where bodies exist, where brains exist, where humans exist. It's all just like this isolated... I think Annie Murphy Paul calls it brains-in-vats and Trevor Elliott, our good friend, is also fond of saying that.
0:39:44.4 MW: That's what really the focus is in cognition, is just this isolated little mechanical piece of you doing things that we can measure and look at, ignoring the rest of it, which obviously impacts everything. And the irony of this too is that it's not like the stuff is hard to find. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, effective neuroscientist, looked at this and talks about neurobiologically, it's impossible to separate emotion from cognition yet all of cognition, and all of hashtag CogSci tries to do this. And so I think if we go back to that rehab piece, the surgery component of like, "You have a torn ACL. We'll do surgery. Your ACL is better. There you go."
0:40:20.7 MW: That's a really convenient way of thinking about everything, which is like, "I'm the expert. I have identified the cause. I have fixed the problem. I have applied problem... Branded thought pattern X to fix it." Rehab is time-intensive. It's attention intensive. You need a lot of history in context, and you need to build trust because someone has to believe to tell you like, "It actually hurts when I do this or I have to bear with you while you tease these things apart?" I think if we can get away from this idea that there is a solution, that there is a way that brains do things, and instead just accept that it's always adapting, it's always dynamically responding to its environment, and if we know as much about that as possible, we are just better caretakers of not just the brain and the stuff that goes into it that equips it for stuff later in life, but of the human also, and if we make sure that we're caretakers of the human as well as the brain, and we're adopting that policy of like knowing about the brain doesn't dismiss everything that we intuitively believe about helping kids navigate school, that's something where I think we can all benefit and sort of move away from that CogSci one-dimensionality, that lack of practicality.
0:41:28.1 MW: Yeah. Sorry, this got really long-winded, but I think that's the biggest problem with CogSci, is that it flattens all of the dynamic into a series of lecture notes, a series of outputs that the teacher creates, and that's really what cognition does, is it says, "Learning happens in this way for everyone all the time." And it doesn't. All brains compensate, and if you understand that, and you try to actually work with students to figure out how they compensate, they'll tell you how they're doing it. And that's the thing which for me has been so liberating about the work I do, is kids feel more competent doing the few professional developments I've done, teachers feel more competent saying, "This eval might actually have missed something," which again, I'm not out to prove any eval is wrong, but they're not... They're blunt tools at best. So the idea there is that there's a richer, more dynamic world that we're missing and we're dismissing it out of hand with stuff like CogSci. The danger of CogSci really is that flattening, or that acceptance of a prepackaged conclusion without any criticality.
0:42:25.8 NC: My frustration with that hashtag CogSci, again, that flattened version of it, not the holistic field of cognitive neuroscience, or neuropsychology or anything, but just this particular narrowed version is that it imagines learning that it's like something that happens out here, and not something that happens... And by out here I just mean like in the ether. It's something that teachers... Learning is something that teachers do, and so it focuses on those teacher-controlled factors rather than, right, learning is just something that happens in the brain and it's happening all the time, and so when we reduce that learning equation down to those inputs and outputs that we can measure in the cognitive science lab, and then we say like, "Here's the settled science on how learning functions," well then, you're not treating human beings in the context of their bodies and in the world. And it's not just reductive. I understand it being reductive from a scientific method perspective, but then to extrapolate and then to apply that on to fully fledged, again, embodied humans in the world just seems like a fallacy from the outset, and yet you get so much push back from people who are the most fervent supporters of this cognizance.
0:43:35.2 NC: You're a science denier. If you don't think it looks like this, do you also doubt the efficacy of vaccines, and global warming, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, just because you say like, "Hey, I think learning might be more complicated than the Cognitive Load Theory if that's the thing we're gonna root all of our work in." You've been mentioning Annie Murphy Paul, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. What other foundational works are out there? What things do you read to keep up-to-date? What are some foundational texts that you could get into if people wanted to think more like you and kind of have our minds broadened, no pun intended, into... Because the hashtag CogSci, ResearchED, all of that stuff is ubiquitous on edgy Twitter, it's everywhere, it's the pedagogical front for the UK Department of Education at this point. So they have a lot of resources, they have a lot of influence and they're very easily accessible. I have found that you've been a tremendous resource for me, but I can't just go find neuroscience articles and try to make sense of those things, but what... If you kinda had like a, "Read this, watch this," where could people start to get involved in that bigger conversation about the mind in the world?
0:44:54.0 MW: This is tough too, right? So it's like there are... I've been doing this for 12 years, and I started out trying to help kids for whom neuropsychological evaluation could not identify what their problems were. And so it was like, "Ugh, I gotta go learn everything I can about the eval process and see what it's missing and how it works and what it's getting at, so that these evals that they do have," Or at least hopefully contextualizing something, right? So I think the biggest thing I would know, it's tough. If you're really interested in it, you can go pick up a bunch of school of neuropsychology practitioner handbooks, which are dry and it's all about reading test results, and that gives you... If you're interested and you could bear it, that's a starting place, and that's where I started, which was gross, and honestly, I would never do it again if I didn't have to. It was brutal, but it gave me what I needed.
0:45:43.2 MW: The thing which filled in the gaps after that, neurodevelopment is huge. Reading about the ways in which the brain actually grows and changes and different theories about it, and then looking at the evolution of the theories of neurodevelopment, not just this idea of like, ah, our brain grows this time and then it stops develop... Your prefrontal lobe is not fully developed until this age, and that's why you... Like new medal, or whatever, but the idea there is like there is no one solid theory of neurodevelopment that is, people are like, "Yes, brains do these things in this order." And so reading about it let's you figure out like, "Ah, there's a lot more here than I thought." For me specifically, because neuropsychology deals with the identification of problems, learning about dyscalculia, dyslexia, processing disorders, executive dysfunction, ADHD, social-emotional issues, all of that stuff, I read a lot of trauma therapy stuff. That stuff was really what I read next. And so my expertise is cobbled together from so many disparate fields of desperately trying not to miss something mainly 'cause also when I was tutoring, I was often the last resource people had.
0:46:56.9 MW: They had done the evals, nothing was working, changed schools, and then they would call me and ask for help, and I would try as hard as I could to figure out what was going on. And so I will say that if I... For lay teachers just like people in the classroom, I'd say reading executive functioning books are great, but most of them are terrible is the problem, so you have to go through this kind of like, "Its organization. Great. What do I do now? It's emotional regulation. Wonderful. What does that actually mean?" I think it's "Executive Function & Child Development", is a book by husband and wife team. I think they're Chuck and Marcie Yeager. It's not Chuck Yeager. Sorry, he's a fighter pilot. It's somebody Yeager. Maybe Daniel. I forget. But it's Yeager and Yeager wrote it. It's really good, and it contextualizes how executive function works across a variety of developmental context, and it really dispels this idea that by first grade you should be able to sit in a chair and regulate your feelings of being bored. And I have a first grader right now, and I can tell you that it's not there for him. He's trying as hard as... But it...
0:47:58.8 NC: He comes by it, honestly.
0:48:02.0 MW: Yeah, yeah. And so I think that book is fascinating, just 'cause it dispels the notion that there is linear tracking of those things which impact learning so much. Like, imagine doing your entire learning through attempting to control impulses you have, right? Just about basic... Not like big impulses like "I wanna throw this eraser at Mark." Like the smaller impulse like, "I don't wanna be sitting right now," or "I have to pee and I have to wait," or "I'm very hungry and I can't eat." Those things never block a kid from doing those things when they're home. You just go pee, you just go eat, whatever. You just do those things. There's never the impulse control that you need to have.
0:48:39.6 MW: And that's not really important for life either. Like in my... I've worked at an office, I've worked in a school, I've worked in a huge variety of different places, and on a long bus ride is the only time you don't get to go pee when you want to, unless it's an absolute emergency, and then the bus driver may make a change for you. And so I think this is funny to me that we've convinced ourselves that, and it's funny in a tragic way that there is this kind of uniform development in acquisition of these skills about controlling yourself, and then it's important for life to do these things, when it's not at all. I can't tell you how many times... I work in an all-remote... I have a full-time job, which I'm not speaking in my professional capacity here about that at all, so just for my employer's sake, but I work there and every...
0:49:27.3 MW: Very smart people will be on camera, on Zoom and they're interrupting, not because they are mean, or because they're rude, it's because they're excited and they wanna jump in and say something, and then a person will have to ask them to stop, and they do, and it's fine. But my point is like the idea that that's punishable in a school, that like that's you not paying attention, or not remembering the rules of the classroom when adults do it all the time, because it's just not that natural to continuously check your impulse to listen... In some contexts, it is. I'm getting ahead of myself here, but my point is it's not necessary for life. You can accidentally interrupt people and catch yourself. It's like you could pee when you want to, but that's assumed that not doing that is somehow this developmental problem, and it's also the same thing like forgetting a pencil. So I don't know. Reading about executive function gets you that piece that this stuff is insane that we believe it's linear development and it doesn't.
0:50:25.4 MW: Or that there is a process for acquisition of these, when most of the stuff when you can't learn is learned by outside modeling, that that's how you acquire it, and also that executive functioning extends to symbol systems, meaning it's not just yourself, your planning, your everything. It's literal language. The executive function groups, organizes, segments, deconstructs words, letters, the lines that make up the letters. That's all executive functioning.
0:50:50.4 MW: It's perceptual, yes, because you have to perceive it, and it's visual, right, because you have to be able to track it, but at post-moment of perception to make sense of the stimuli, to make sense of the lines, there is executive functioning taking place. And that book really blew the doors off that conclusion for me, because then once you understand that, that like dealing with numbers might actually be executive dysfunction, and then you look at how dyscalculia manifest, you're like, "Oh my God, there's so much overlap between these two." So long-winded way of saying, read that one book by the Yeagers, and then be very skeptical and careful looking at anything else about executive functioning, especially if it's about planning.
0:51:27.4 MW: And then the next piece I'd say is looking at Steven G. Feifer, who's a little known neuropsychologist who writes. He wrote the great books around the turn of 2000, so turn of the century I was about to say. I guess it is in one way, but he wrote, "The Neuropsychology of Mathematics", "The Neuropsychology of Reading Disorders", and "The Neuropsychology of Written Language Disorder." Three books. He illustrated it with this guy. I think Albert De Fina, I wanna say is his name, who did all the diagrams and the charts, but it's such a good trio of books, particularly dyscalculia and dyslexia, that's what I spend most of my time digging into, but he explains in short why we're bad at detecting these things and they can be caught in better ways, and IQ tests are terrible, and that he has all the different ways you could think about catching these compensation patterns, and he'll talk about compensation patterns in this book, so compensation... I wanna say conversation patters isn't my patented trademark pending thing. It's like a well-documented neuropsychological phenomenon, and what you're doing is you're locating a kid's pattern of errors, you're helping them identify it and then you're saying like, "Here's how your brain compensates, here's where you wanted to go, here are the things we're gonna try based on that, and we'll see which one works."
0:52:42.5 MW: It's cooperative, it's collaborative, it's open. There's no expertise, there's no authority. There's just a person saying, "Here's what I'm seeing. Let's check it, let's see this new method and see if it works." And it's remarkable how less stringent the idea of remediation is with Feifer because he's not trying to remediate. It's like you are trying to get a kid to do... To read... What's the word I want? You're trying to access functionality that wasn't there, or trying to build functionality that wasn't there before, and you're doing it not by having someone tell you to do this rated thought pattern or have these lecture slides presented this way. You're doing it 'cause they identified this stuff was hard, you verified it with them, and then together you're gonna embark on this other program, or course of action that you know might help.
0:53:28.5 MW: And to that alone, to me is just kinda blew my mind there. Like you can operate that way helping kids learn to read, learn to do math, and it doesn't have to be this kind of... This idea that you've outsourced them to special ed, or you need a specialist for it. Granted, he relies a lot on buying premade programs as your solution, because certain programs do certain things well, and he's gone through all of the resources that are available and listed them out at least when it was published, which is great of him and super helpful for educators, but it is really cool to see like you could remediate dyslexia by using this program's patented approach if this subtype is what manifest, and if it's a different one, you should use this other one. But honestly, the two best things about those books is there's a chart in each of them for dyscalculia and dyslexia of what the problems are, like what's lost, what's the deficit, what can a student do, and what's preserved, what can a student do.
0:54:23.5 MW: And I went to... Again, I did a lot of professional development in my two years in the classroom, I was super interested in it, I read as much as I could, and not once someone show me a fucking chart like this. It was just like, "Here's what they can't do, or what they will say is hard, and here's what still works. You can figure it out. Just collect your own data, talk to them and then see which one it is." And when I tell people this, they're like, "But I can't diagnose anyone." And absolutely, no, you should not. This isn't for diagnostic purposes, but it's the same thing as the rehab idea. If I can help a kid adjust the foot motion to not tear an ACL, I should do that. I'm not telling them that they have an ACL tear, I'm not telling them they have a tendon problem. I'm just saying, try this different technique and compensation and thinking about it that way gets you that degree of specificity, it gets you this knowledge that is honestly hidden away. I don't know why this isn't in teacher training, but it should be like front and center for everybody general ed, not just special ed, and it should be a primary thing of like, "When this is happening, you should look for dyslexia, you should look for dyscalculia, you look for a processing disorder."
0:55:30.4 MW: There's all these different ways we could think about helping kids, right? And the idea that me stumbling on the right combinations of 10 books or of bizarre fields of study that have all coagulated into what I do now, like the fact that I existed as a field, my company existed as a tutoring company for so long basically speaks to the need that we all have for this stuff. It does work. I know it works 'cause I've done it for 12 years, and I also know that it works on kids who aren't 2e, it works on everybody, and I did a bunch of Testprep stuff where we built an entire system of curriculum and assessment of standardized Testprep for the SAT and the SSAT, which are two of the worst designed tests ever, but that's a separate episode. Yeah.
0:56:15.7 MW: But the score improvements were huge, and I know this is always spurious when a Testprep expert claims their score improvements are huge. But it was basically designed to say like, "Kids who really struggle with this who have these documented learning issues, this course I know will work for you." And then when everybody else took it, it worked for them top really well, and the idea here isn't that... I think what I wanna get to with compensation is that it's not just a 2e, LD, autism, whatever. It's not just a neurodivergent phenomenon. All brains compensate all the time, and they do it in ways that are absolutely unique. It's just that school pushes certain categories of compensation outside of its box and gives it a bad label and other ones are richly rewarded, and it's bizarre that we have that, and it's totally arbitrary, but it's no different than saying... A hockey coach saying, "You can't teach height." It's like that's the world of hockey. You need big people to play hockey professionally, and likewise, it doesn't mean you couldn't be a good hockey player if you were small, but there's a certain idea and a limiting belief about what it means to be a hockey player, and that's it.
0:57:21.1 MW: And this is exactly what compensation should be. It should be this way that we bridge across those categories and stop thinking about it as these narrow definitions of ability and disability, but instead we're in the systems that we're in, and those ideas of like, you can go to Learning and the Brain and not once are you gonna see a chart which that's like, "Here's how to spot legit patterns that your kids are having." Instead it's like, "When you're doing your lecture, here's an excellent way to keep kids attention." And maybe that's good and maybe it's not, but literally the guy talking about differentiating your lecture methods lectured to a room for an hour straight showing slide.
0:57:57.8 NC: I can recall from my own teacher training, and my experience with professional development, is that they wanna situate solutions in the discipline, so you'd have to approach things from a reading lens or a math lens or... So it's like, "Okay, let me work through this series of heuristics and practice problems." It's exactly what you said. Just throw an iterative series of practice problems to kinda figure out what students can't get, and then if those things fail, you stop looking for solutions where really the model that you're talking about doesn't seek solutions in the discipline. It seeks solutions between you and the students and trying to troubleshoot those within the student, where the issue, where the hurdle, where the barrier that you're trying to break through exist. It doesn't exist in math, it doesn't exist in history or biology, but it exists in some kind of disconnect, barrier. Something is not clicking in the mind of that student, so it attempts to situate the solution space, the troubleshooting space within the student's brain. Am I grokking that in the right way?
0:59:00.9 MW: I believe you've grokked it. I think there's also a larger... This is weird too, 'cause it's hard to talk about compensation in a lens of then how teacher training works, but the simplest thing I could say is if we just had this compensation idea and we were going with that, is like we're gonna think about all thinking in this frame, you stop really caring about... Your discipline is as much your discipline, but it's also like it's the connections you have with your student, it's knowing your own... It's your own qualitative data that you're collecting through observation. That isn't just about test results. It's knowing that Tommy said this was really hard, or knowing that they took an extra two minutes, or came up to you and asked you seven extra times for help, and the...
0:59:41.6 MW: One of the coolest things that James Shine, he's that Australian researcher that I mentioned, this idea of energy expenditure as a kind of governor is that energy expenditure for neural pathways that are farther apart or not available or compensating in a long way, the longer the pathway is the more energy you need to do it. So something that's really hard, you're gonna spend a lot of energy going. Brains are always trying to conserve energy, always, always, always, always.
1:00:10.4 MW: So energy expenditure is a really good proxy for processing effort, if you wanna call it that, or brain effort or energy, and even just calling it like it's a good proxy for difficulty, and it may not mean necessarily that the problem is "hard". It's just particularly it's hard for that student. So it's a relative measure of it, but the idea that energy expenditure could be a measure of these things mean that every teacher has I don't know how many terabytes of data in their brain just from the random things they remembered about what happened with student X, student Y, student Z in particular context.
1:00:47.5 MW: And if you put that to use, you're equipping teachers to move way beyond this narrow box of pre-constructed lessons or curriculum or training that really doesn't ask them to stretch to the full limit of their ability in terms of... There's probably a lot more that they're capable of, and the idea that lesson planning and lesson structure has to happen in a certain vertically aligned paste out way is most likely limiting them in addition to the students, but most teachers could probably tell you what's going on with the student emotionally or which problems were particularly hard, and you can leverage that if you have compensation as a framework and you get the training around it. You can do nothing with it if you're just telling the teacher next to you, "Yeah, Charlie, really fractions are hard." And that's... And you're hoping that that gets resolved somewhere.
1:01:39.0 NC: This has been a great conversation, Michael. Honestly I have learned so much from your own passionate, knowledgeable, informed intensity like laser focus on these issues, and just being such a willing sharer of that stuff too. In all of the spaces that we've participated in, I always walk away learning a lot. Is there other places where our listeners can connect to you on Twitter, websites? Where can people find you, your words and your work?
1:02:08.6 MW: Yeah, so penelopeeducation.com. Let me just check to make sure I still own that URL, but I'm pretty sure I do. [chuckle] Probably should have checked before the show, but I'm pretty sure that's it. That's where I sort of post thoughts, and...
1:02:22.8 NC: If not, we'll post the updated URL on the show notes.
1:02:26.2 MW: Yeah, exactly. That's sort of the biggest store of stuff. Yeah, penelopeeducation.com. It's there. And I'm updating that, so there's a lot of stuff on there, which I'm gonna be hopefully changing in the next three months, but that's there for now. And I got a blog on there, which I never update, but there's some stuff on there. Twitter, I've stopped posting on after the Muskerry takeover, so I'm on Discord. If you're interested, you can shoot me an email at my full name, or you can drop me a Twitter DM. My email is just michaelweingarth@gmail so if you're interested and you wanna join the little Discord server I have where I'm posting a lot of this neuro fluffer stuff and expansive ways of thinking about teaching and learning without relying on that super limited cognition lens, that's the place I'm gonna be posting all of it. Yeah, and then hopefully there's an updated website in the next couple of months with some more continuous writing on it.
1:03:14.8 NC: Awesome. Thanks so much again for joining us, man.
1:03:17.5 MW: Yeah, thanks for having me on.
1:03:23.0 S1: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Projects podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive form of education. You can learn more about progressive education. Support our case, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.
1:03:45.7 NC: Hey listeners. Thanks for making it this far. This is the addendum Michael wanted to add about cognitive compensation. It's about 13 minutes long, so I hope you find it useful.
1:03:55.8 MW: Cognitive compensation is not my proprietary idea. It has existed for a long time in neuropsychology as a way to look at brain function that... Or neural pathways that are currently unavailable, and what a brain does to route around them. The textbook example is getting a blunt force injury to your temple somehow and temporally having a loss of eyesight. And in the meantime, while you can't see, you as a human presuming you can hear and can feel things, can navigate the world without that sense.
1:04:29.9 MW: So the idea behind compensation is that it is a way of moving around neural pathways that are unavailable using pathways that don't particularly do those things. So the way this works with schools, and the way this works with learning that's so interesting and unique is once you take that idea of neural pathways that are unavailable, you can enter into this way of elevating earned knowledge and wisdom by knowing, "My students are struggling with this thing, or this unit is always hard, and certain students have these types of patterns that show up." You don't have just to keep saying that it's types of patterns. You can then name those patterns and give them more technical terms and you can see them in this new light where you can tease out what components of executive functioning or processing are going on, and more importantly, it gives you a subtlety and a way to investigate error with more precision, with more connection to other patterns.
1:05:25.7 MW: And so the best way I can explain this is that when I was young, I decided I wanted to be a musician, and I picked up a bass guitar and a regular guitar and taught myself how to play those two instruments. I did not take lessons for the first seven years. Oh, no, sorry, the first six years that I played, and then when I finally did, I was ready for the lessons, but at the time, I was learning a lot of songs by ear, and I understood sounds as a catalog of relationships between finger spacing. And so I had some basic understanding of, these are notes, and there are half-steps and whole steps, and I understood the difference between what sounds like a rock song or what sounds like a folk song. I understood those things, but I didn't have a language for talking about a minor third versus a major third or an a Aeolian mode or a Lydian mode, and why I should solo in that in this particular key. And once I took lessons, I didn't really take them for that long, but I learned enough theory that all the earned experience I had suddenly connected to a higher plane of possibility.
1:06:32.5 MW: I was immediately able to do things I didn't think was possible because I had started to disregard theory and technical knowledge as limiting, and what it did was that it opened up all of the patterns I had seen or I had heard rather, and then mapped to a visual spatial relationship between frets. All of a sudden now they were inter-layed and connected and plugged into a larger system, and the pattern recognition that I had done, now I could find even larger patterns. I could see the ways in which the smaller pieces I had identified made up components of things that were amazing, and that made me so much better as a player and as a listener too, I could hear bigger patterns once I understood those connections.
1:07:19.6 MW: And compensation aims to do that for educators. It aims to make student feedback readable and investigative, investigable? I don't know what word I would have used there, but it let's you tease apart student error and student feedback to actually figure out in terms of, not just the earned experience one, where you can say, "Charlie's having a hard time with fractions when the denominator is bigger than a certain number," you can actually then look at this and say, what's the executive functioning involved with that? What's the processing involved with that? And then not only can you figure out that one moment, can you figure out the precision and the name for it? That itself is not really that useful. Really where you leverage this is then you can see it across all of Charlie's work.
1:08:03.2 MW: You can see patterns of executive functioning that are not quite firing the way you might expect, or hang-ups that maybe don't represent a full-on processing disorder, but represent a pretty serious lag time, a way that... Or a slower uptake of certain concepts or across the board, anything with diagrams that involve horizontal and vertical relationships and isolating them is really hard for this student, and that would show up in their science class, in their math class, some in maps. In all these different contexts these things would show up. And so the idea here isn't to let you say, "Charlie is bad at thing X, Y and Z in these new ways." Rather it's to say, "Here's what's going on for this student, here's what's going on for Charlie, and what we're seeing with Charlie is Charlie is really good at these other things." And that's the compensation, is where we can look at what Charlie is good at and find ways to route what he's not through those available pathways to basically say, "I know that when Charlie has struggled with other stuff, stuff that he's confident... Comfortable with, what he does is he covers up most of the work, so he's only looking at one thing at a time or he uses six extra sheets of paper so he can write really big."
1:09:14.9 MW: And there's a hint there about how much information Charlie can take in in a given time. Using a smaller visual field, like the amount of information your eyes can see or are exposed to in any one given moment is basically about prioritization and visual processing, but it's really an executive functioning about prioritizing what you're seeing.
1:09:35.5 MW: And so if we know that Charlie likes to cover up his work, probably it means it's easier for him to perceive things and process information when it's limited, and that's true for most people. But what's interesting is that you can take something there where they have a strategy that works when they're doing something they like, and you can transfer it over to the context where they really struggle. And usually you're gonna find some degree of traction, but more importantly, you're getting the student... You're asking them what works for you, and then you're leveraging that over and trying it in other ways. And if not, there's a whole boatload of ways to think about combinations of executive dysfunction, of processing issues, of perceptual issues and tools and strategies and ways of thinking about it that you can always be recontextualizing and shifting how a student is approaching it until they find one that feels like an available compensation pattern or a viable... I shouldn't say available. It's a viable compensation pattern that's gonna get around the road block.
1:10:33.4 MW: And I think where this sort of differs from everything else that's going on is that this is a way of working with a student to collaborate, to enhance and enrich their feedback as well as the earned experience of teachers into something way more powerful as opposed to something like Cognitive Load Theory, which you and I have talked about extensively, but really represents the opposite end of that spectrum where a teacher is refining how they're presenting material, but it's very much a one way dynamic where we're using science about how to lecture at children, or how to present information at children, and then measuring how they regurgitate that information in some way, shape or form.
1:11:18.5 MW: We are rarely using Cognitive Load Theory and saying that's the reason that students are more critical thinkers or doing more complex tasks. What we see is that we're using those things like Cognitive Load Theory and these really isolated, measurable contexts as opposed to compensation, which isn't designed to really produce a better test score or an evidence-based study. What it's designed to do is shape and form student reporting and teacher experience, and let them meet in a place where everyone can understand a common scientific vocabulary or theoretical vocabulary of how to think about error patterns, then also how to think about error itself expansively, not just as a thing you can't do or didn't understand yet, but rather as an indication of your brain's latent preferences for how it prefers information or how it has processed information in the past, and it's reluctance to form new ways to do that, or the possibility of forming new ways of doing that, and how difficult or easy that may be.
1:12:27.9 MW: But once you start reframing error this way, you're not telling a student, "I presented my lecture slides in this way, therefore you should understand this information and not make errors." What you're doing then is saying, "You and I are going to trust each other to meet somewhere in the middle on finding ways to work through material that you find very difficult or tasks or components of tasks that you find very difficult, and I'm gonna trust your reporting and use it, and I'm gonna teach you the science I know, and with that, we will both be doing this together to effectively remove the obstacle."
1:13:07.3 MW: So compensation really just puts the student right alongside the teacher in figuring out what's going on, and you're both playing detective at that point. It's the teacher's job to educate and inform, and it's my job to sort of train and educate teachers or administrators or whoever enough so that that information can get imparted, but it's a framework and it's not a set of solutions. So I think it's more similar to something like universal design for learning, which is an attempt to expand the constraints of design thinking and other pedagogical approaches that emphasize an output, and UDL is real saying that every component of the design has to meet these different criteria in order to be "universally accessible".
1:14:02.6 MW: Even then, there's problems with using UDL as a catch-all for everything to do with neurodiversity, and I think the one thing it really lives out is the fact that brains adapt and they change and they shift, and what we see in our work is that you might be working on something with a student and two months later, that is no longer a problem, but something completely new has now emerged, and really the way... I describe this in a podcast Leviev Eleven who does Less and Impossible.
1:14:30.4 MW: But it's sort of like building a bridge where you put the first pillar in place to build the bridge or to build the foundation of the bridge or you put the first wire, whatever component of the bridge you're building first. You put that there, and then the next one has to go up after it, but people don't expect that you're gonna find catastrophic failure after it. What they expect is that, "Oh, we worked through this hard part. Things should be easier now." And I think the interesting thing about brains and neural pathways is that if you're sort of forging a path, it's similar forging a path in deep woods, where you gotta hack and remove stuff and push a boulder out of the way, and you're not always doing the same task. You're not always just clearing with a machete, or an axe or whatever.
1:15:17.2 MW: You are moving the earth, you are moving the trees, you are peeling back hanging branches, you're knocking down thorny bushes. It's a bunch of different tasks to get to a clear and available path and brains don't like the effort associated with clearing new paths. That's why we're creatures of habit, is that once we get a habit, it's way more energy-efficient to use the habit. And so the problem with thinking about UDL as a lifeline is that if you hit UDL guidelines and somehow you've differentiated sufficiently, and in reality, you might come across a student whose path isn't fully clear. Maybe UDL let them move a little bit farther than a path that didn't have that, but there's still more obstacles for them. They're gonna require basically just more differentiated feedback or a way of moving around an obstacle that's very specific to them and compensation let's you do that. It let's you address those individual obstacles. Obviously, when we talk about this stuff, it's energy-intensive and time-intensive, and that's really...
1:16:22.1 MW: It was designed in a one-on-one context for my work with students and for some group classes who were able to leverage this into data systems, and part of what I'm doing with Penelope, which is sort of my side project, is doing that, is trying to find ways to build qualitative data systems as a way of looking at larger batches of information to find conclusions, and we've done that with Testprep pretty successfully. The goal here really is that teachers should be able to explain this to any student, and I think at progressive schools that are interested in this, that care about accessibility, that care about neurodiversity, that care about brain-based learning, I think this is the type of thing that takes them to the next level and enriches that hiring great educators and letting... And trusting them. This is the type of thing which then enables them to really grow past just the constraints of the 'science of teaching and learning" or those more one-way components where all the studies and the evidence is about measurable outcomes from tests, not just what they're hearing from students.